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By Bret Baker
Pine Knot News Outdoors 

Fall Panfish: Feast or Famine


November 2, 2018

Columnist Bret Baker shows off a crappie he caught on a good day not long ago.

I'm not sure how I convinced my boys, David and Joseph, to crawl out of bed this morning. The world was still dark and a light rain fell: perfect weather for duck hunting. However, late fall crappies and bluegills would be the target of our collective efforts. Just a week ago the three of us made this same trip. It was a disaster. Weather was nasty, the wind was brutal, and fishing was worse. We took our beating in stride; today was marked for redemption.

In reality, you can't control all the variables. The best-laid plans can be thrown into disarray by the fall turnover period. From a scientific standpoint the fall turnover is the period of time when the entire lake is circulating (turning over) and becoming uniform in water temperature. Pre- and post-turnover fish locations can vary wildly. Stable weather and post-turnover conditions mark the return to excellent fall fishing; but attempting to fish a lake that is in the actual process of turnover is a lot like slamming your head against a wall. I'm no scientist, but I know what it feels like to be in the boat during turnover. The water is turbid, full of debris, and fishing is oftentimes at its worst. In fact, your best bet when faced with these conditions is to trailer up and switch lakes. Different bodies of water, and even different portions of the same lake, will experience the fall turnover at varying times.

Besides absolutely unfishable wind or weather, all other variables can be addressed.

First, locating fall panfish should be step one. One of the biggest mistakes I see anglers repeat is fishing memories. They motor out to where they may have caught fish in the past, throw anchor, and hope fishing is good again. When I fire up my Honda tiller in the morning, most days I never shut it off. In the fall, when panfish set up in deeper water they are easy to graph with your electronics. Therefore, I will never fish a spot when I'm not marking any fish. Preferably I'm marking large congregations of fish relating to a piece of structure. Also, if I'm marking a lot of fish and not getting bit, I will slide up a little shallower. I find fish staged in 20- to 30 feet of water less likely to bite than their counterparts in 12- to 19 feet of water. Once I have fish location dialed in, it's time to make fillets while the sun's shining.

In reality, finding the multitudes of fall panfish is 90 percent of the battle. Once located, using the proper rods, line, and baits will seal the deal. I run 6- to 7-foot light or ultralight rods. Small reels spooled with 4-pound test monofilament line complete the setup. On the business end, I tie 1/32- to 1/16-oz. jigs.

I often joke that color doesn't matter much for crappies and bluegills as long as it's pink or white.

Throughout the year I almost exclusively run tubes, grubs, and other soft plastics. However, live bait ruled the day today. A pinched-off crawler about 1/2- inch in length or two wax worms threaded on the jig proved irresistible. Another option is the #2 jigging rap: an ice fishing classic that has become an open water staple. Lastly, some of our biggest fish came on a slip bobber tipped with an entire crawler, suspended above the fish, well away from the boat.

As we motored through the shallow bays and channels this morning, we jumped several groups of ducks from their marshy hiding spots. Shots rang throughout the morning, letting us know we were sharing the cold drizzly morning with outdoorsmen with a different target in mind. It reminds me that autumn is harvest time. When you find yourself on a large concentration of fall panfish, and they are coming over the gunnels fast and furious, please practice selective harvest. We slid several bluegills over that magical 10-inch mark, and crappies north of the 12-inch mark, back into the 50-degree water. We set a target to keep bluegills only in the 8- to 8.5-inch range and crappies under 12 inches. A week ago nothing went our way. Today over 200 panfish visited our boat - most only momentarily. A fantastic mess of cold water crappies and bluegills made the trip back to Cloquet. Hard to believe we caught a couple hundred more fish than last week, but fall marks the feast or famine time of year.

Tonight we feast.


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